It's funny, but neon tubes do precious little for my idea of magic. So when the Linbury Theatre unveiled Niki Turner's unprepossessing design for Olivia Fuchs's tiresome new Royal Opera House production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the first flicker of azure strip-lights illuminated nagging doubts: was this to be a magic-free evening? Alas, yes.
Fuchs's opening shenanigans - ludicrous jockeying for scarlet seats among six besuited "court" characters - couldn't have seemed less relevant to Britten's breathtaking beginning. The first caperings of Shakespeare's tiffing lovers, apart from Katie Van Kooten's beautifully - if overripely - sung Helena, suggested a long evening on the way. Tiny members of Tiffin Boys' Choir sang fabulously - it's just that fairies need clever, specific choreographing if they are to beguile.
As for the yokels, I'm not sure anyone had directed them at all. Jonathan Best - a most capable comic performer - looked to be on autopilot as Quince. None of these "hempen homespuns" had the slightest idea of how to make gormlessness look funny. This was lame, dull, flagging and patently devoid of that fundamental dramatic accoutrement, invention.
Rather loud, so occasionally compounding the problem, the City of London Sinfonia - not least its fine-tuned percussion and celesta players - squeezed out plenty of alluring shimmers, with Richard Hickox presiding. And the magic once or twice, oh so coyly, peeped through on gossamer wings: first, the cherishing close of Act I, where William Towers's exquisitely sung Oberon leans over Gillian Keith's stilled Titania; and later, Darren Jeffery's Bottom, transfigured, slips into a fairyland reverie with Titania astride him. Keith's singing was as gorgeous as her studied gestures were abysmal. Jeffery, mostly left hopelessly flailing, here suddenly soared to the challenge.
Jami Quarrell's Puck proved the best actor by a mile. Mark Beesley was a pleasingly forceful Theseus. At the eleventh hour, Andrew Kennedy's Flute, totted up in violent pink, almost made something of Thisbe. Various back-projections (by Jon Driscoll) merely added to the limp "conceptual" feel, apart from a thrilling, mesmerising sequence of a brown owl, beating its wings in mysterious slow motion. Frankly, the owl upstaged them all.
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